The United Nations General Assembly has declared May 21 the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. This day provides an opportunity to understand the value of cultural diversity. It can help us consider how to live together better amidst our great diversity.
In honour of this day, we should move beyond tolerance towards greater cultural appreciation and inclusion in our workplaces and communities.
“Tolerance” – a slippery slope
Do you tolerate ice cream, or other favourite food? Probably not quite the word you would choose. How do you feel about ice cream? When it comes to ice cream, usually we have enthusiasm and good feelings. It would be nice if we could muster that same kind of enthusiasm when talking about culture and diversity!
Here is what tolerate means according to the Google Dictionary: “tol·er·ate: ‘to accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance’ or ‘to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something (that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.’”
I have a love/hate relationship with the word tolerance. Often you will hear diversity trainers talk about the importance of tolerance. I think to myself: are we as individuals (fill in your own terms) – a woman, an immigrant, a person who identifies as transgender, a refugee, someone with a disability – are we to be “tolerated”?
I don’t think that is what we are really after. Do you want to be merely tolerated? Is tolerance what we should be striving for?
Toleration can look very patronizing – “We’ll let you in if we have to” – with no real appreciation for the value that others bring to the table. What I usually encourage people to think about is how to help people feel included, affirmed, accepted for their unique gifts and contributions. How might this look in your workplace, community or family?
Steps towards inclusion
Being inclusive doesn’t mean pretending to agree to avoid conflict or create some delusion that everyone will be best friends. We can’t ignore that real cultural, ethnic, gender or ideological differences exist. Inclusion means that we will create spaces, environments and attitudes that are welcoming, positive and non-discriminatory. It may mean allocating or reallocating resources to increase access (e.g., wheelchair ramps), or reducing or removing barriers to increase participation (e.g., unfair policies or practices).
What can you do?
There is a lot you can do. Here are a couple of simple things to get started:
- Ask others how they wish to be treated : I often hear people quote the Golden Rule –we should treat others the way we wish to be treated. I encourage people to go one step further and ask others how they wish to be treated. Treating others how we wish to be treated assumes that everyone wishes to be treated like us, and this isn’t always the case. Asking someone how they wish to be treated is a sign of respect and can go a long way to creating an inclusive environment for the other person. I have sometimes made assumptions about what others need or want. Simply asking what others want or need can avoid this.
- Build greater awareness about culture and diversity. There are lots of ways to build your awareness:
- Attend a workshop about culture and diversity, and learn some new skills and build your cultural fluency.
- Consider your spheres of influence – where can you be more inclusive of diversity?
- Research your family’s ethnic and cultural roots.
- Choose a cultural group to learn about and get to know it from its history to politics to art to food – enjoy!
- Check out this campaign for other interesting ideas to explore: http://www.unaoc.org/what-we-do/campaigns/do-one-thing-for-diversity-and-inclusion/.
Let’s step away from toleration. Intercultural dialogue and exploration should be like ice cream or your favourite food – something you look forward to, that you would wholeheartedly like to include in your day. If I am different than you, let’s start with the assumption that I have something of value to offer. It’s a much better starting place. Let’s also make sure the environment is set up so that I can be included in it. This means that spaces, practices or policies don’t unwittingly exclude or discriminate against me.
Greater diversity and cultural dialogue will enhance our communities and workplaces with equity and inclusion. We can live together better – not just tolerate each other. Ice cream, anyone?